Of Blessed Memory

My Google photos app is a painful place to spend too much time in nowadays. Earlier this week, The United States passed the one year mark of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. For those of us who live in some of the first hotspot neighborhoods, that “one year” mark was several days, or even weeks earlier. Now, when I decide to browse my photos app, the on this day section looms at the top — a chance to look back at March 17 in 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017 — and beyond.

I start with an image not from last year, but rather from three years ago. This is a picture from a particularly aggressive flu outbreak in our school. My now 8th graders, and then 5th graders, filed in to the classroom first thing in the morning to discover that half of their classmates were absent. This image shows a row, normally containing 5 students, with only one. I remember this moment so clearly. The kids joked nervously about this phenomena, but many sat quietly at their desks, simmering in anxiety about invisible illnesses, and uncertainty in the air. Emotionally, I felt curious and afraid. Remember, in 2018, we were not wearing masks and social distancing was not “a thing.” I remember reaching for the hand sanitizer that I kept in my bag, and noting this moment with a photo — this was a moment to remember. This was a moment of unknowing -and as a species, we don’t tend to do well in unknowing.

This day passed, as did many others, and the students eventually returned. We forgot about the week where half the class was sick, missing, invisible.

Until 2020.

In my memories from last year, I apparently documented my daughter’s first — but not last — breakdown at having to attend her Pre-K class over Zoom, and the loneliness she was starting to feel from the two dimensional experience of her once, very tangible and tactile classroom friends. The documentation of the day starts with images of her logged on to class, a break, which we spent outdoors in our backyard, and then — a series of pictures of the two of us where her face progressively breaks, tears come. The documenting ends there.

I don’t remember all of my daughter’s stormy days from last year, but I do remember that one. It was the first -and we all remember (most of) our firsts. By this point, we had been in virtual school for well over a week, and as upbeat as our principal tried to be, the global situation made it clear that we were going to spend a long, long time on here. I ached for my daughter — unable to change her reality, and barely able to make it better for her. As a teacher, I was also struggling with managing already jaded middle schoolers on Zoom, and managing my own heartbreak at missing these crucial months with them.

Eventually, this storm passed, and we built a tower with magnetic tiles, and moved on.

In general, March 17th is a day of memory for me. Aside from the one year ago moments, it is also my grandfather Asher (z”l)’s calendar birthday — he would have been 89 today — the day that I ran my first half marathon, and felt deep in my core that indeed, I have done, and could continue to do hard things, and in general — a day that holds within it the foggy remnants of winter, and the hopeful arrival of spring. It is an in between day. Today, it also happens to be the day that I take my entrance exam for Rabbinical School — something that my Saba Asher (z”l) would have gotten such a kick out of. It is a significant stepping stone in my life, after many unexpected spiritual turns and realignments.

As is customary for me now, I turn to the Torah for guidance and inspiration. After all, so much wisdom is passed down to us from these words emanating from above and beyond, inscribed thousands of years ago. So what does the Torah have to tell us about memory? — This particular line, said to the people of Israel at the time where they are so close to entering their promised land — but yet, not quite allowed to, really stuck with me:

רַ֡ק הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֩ וּשְׁמֹ֨ר נַפְשְׁךָ֜ מְאֹ֗ד פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּ֨ח אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֜ים אֲשֶׁר־רָא֣וּ עֵינֶ֗יךָ וּפֶן־יָס֙וּרוּ֙ מִלְּבָ֣בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל יְמֵ֣י חַיֶּ֑יךָ וְהוֹדַעְתָּ֥ם לְבָנֶ֖יךָ וְלִבְנֵ֥י בָנֶֽיךָ׃

Be careful and guard well your life that you never forget the happenings which your eyes have seen, and let them not depart from your memory throughout your life time. Transmit to your Children and their descendants, (Devarim 4:9)

Transmitting our memories to our children is the way we keep them alive, and those who have passed on, still with us. This morning in our car ride to school (THANK G-D), I chatted with Zoey about her great grandfather, and one of the fundamental lessons he left me with: be kind, especially to strangers. She asked me when he died, and if I was sad (devastated), and we moved on to talking about what she would do in school that day. Later, I will likely show her some pictures of her great grandpa.

In the time of Moses and the desert, there was no Google photos. This might be shocking to some of the millennials and Gen Z folks reading, I know. Long before the time of the photograph, we passed memories down as stories — told from father to son, mother to daughter, elder to youngin. Gd tells the people to guard [their] life, so that they do not forget the happenings which [their] eyes have seen. Memory is a way to guard and protect our narratives. It is a way to pass down not just tradition, but the very existence of our society.

As the movie Coco so beautifully and hauntingly teaches us,

“He’s been forgotten. When there’s no one left in the living world who remembers you, you disappear from this world. We call it the Final Death.”

If no one remembers us, we disappear. So — now, to the point. If we didn’t have our social media to remind us of what we have been through, of the hard things we have done, and of who we were and are becoming — how would we pass it on. You might argue that the evolution of this technology has made our passing down of memory easier. You might say that it immortalizes us -we avoid The Final Death by being forever in image. Like many, I have a love-hate relationship with social media, and I cherish the photos of my grandparents with my children . Still, I would argue back, that it can remind us of a person we have crafted and created —someone who isn’t living the the truth in our core. I would say that these images are not what [our] eyes have seen, but what they have created.

It’s an argument I won’t win — not that I’m trying to. I simply challenge you today, on March 17th, 2021 (or on whatever day you are reading this), to make a memory with your heart. Find a moment — may that be just opening the curtains to see the outside, or connecting meaningfully in a time of disconnection — and cherish it, pass it down, teach your children/students/friends/therapist something from it.

For one day, we do emerge from this desert into a promise land, and we will want our precious memories with us.



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Writer, Runner, Speaker, Teacher, Compassion-Creator. www.yaliszulanski.com